Then, when you meet, you apply conscious thought to these logic problems by establishing criteria and weighing trade-offs. What would success and failure look like? What attributes of the decision need to be in place for it to be successful? You eliminate unacceptable alternatives—what we call “rule-breaking” alternatives. If you’re looking at business schools, you might say tuition has to be lower than a certain figure. You eliminate those that are too high. You want a very explicit disconfirming climate so that people are comfortable with dissent.
Once that information is considered, before making the decision, you need a period for people to sleep on or incubate the ideas, to give the unconscious mind what it needs to participate. You need to set a goal and take a break—to force a delay and some distraction. For instance, you might say, “We’re going to stop for dinner now. We’ve narrowed our five options down to three. Come back tomorrow, and we’ll make a decision in the morning.” That would lead to better decisions than weighing the pros and cons and going straight to a vote.
You could also try to structure group meetings to really take advantage of the process: Get together, discuss ideas as a group, and then have a period of distraction or come back the next day.
Innovation and Influence
S+B: Earlier, you mentioned idea formation. What does the theory say about practices for encouraging innovation?
NORDGREN: Both conscious and unconscious thinking are essential for generating good ideas. A big part of innovation is analysis: thinking through problems, detecting hidden flaws in a plan, articulating problems in the status quo, and detecting what it is you’re doing now that could be better is really the domain of conscious deliberation.
But in generating new ideas and coming up with creative solutions and creative insights, our research suggests that allowing for some distraction is, again, better than pure analytics. These two modes of thought can work in harmony.
You want to develop a culture in which innovation is valued. That requires creating a climate where people feel encouraged to suggest new ways of doing things. They should not be punished for coming up with new ideas, particularly ideas that after some scrutiny might turn out to be not great.
You also need a leader who explicitly works on innovation and validates it. The unconscious is goal driven, and this reinforces the goal of coming up with new ideas. That reinforcement will naturally trigger the unconscious.
There are a number of structured techniques for running innovation sessions. You’ll often see the most successful ones have a structured process that is not purely analytical. This typically involves an orientation toward visual design, which is at least partly intuitive.
Finally, opportunities for delay and distraction are important because people are struggling to conceive an idea. When they pause to look out the window, and then return to the struggle, a better idea is more likely to pop into their mind. Now they can scrutinize it. Does it meet their criteria? If not, they know they need to come up with something better, and they’ll look out the window again. In an office climate where the expectation is to generate fresh, innovative ideas, this approach is going to be particularly powerful.
S+B: What about influencing others? Does the theory of unconscious thought suggest a better way to communicate a decision to other people after it’s been made, and helping them see the reasons to buy into it?
NORDGREN: Coming up with rationales for a decision is easy, because people are natural-born rationalizers. If someone stimulated a part of your brain to make you laugh, and then asked, “Why are you laughing?”—even if you didn’t know why, you would immediately have a plausible reason. You’d say, “Oh, it’s because I remembered this funny thing that happened to me once.”